Hope is the Thing With Petals

Poetry selected and digital images created by Alysa Cummings
Last Modified: December 19, 2004

OncoLink Coping with Cancer - Poetry

The phone rings once. Then rings again. By the third insistent ring, I lift my head from the pillow and squint to see 5:22 glowing on the digital clock near the bed. Who could be calling me so early in the morning? I reach for the phone in the dark and mumble a sleepy hello into the receiver. Silence. I'm ready to hang up when I hear some static, along with a humming noise. Someone's definitely on the line. I think I hear breathing. Or is that hissing? I slowly wake up to what I'm listening to; the sound of the letter "s" stretched and drawn out by someone's intense effort to speak and be understood.

Suddenly the mystery of who might be calling me before 6 a.m. is solved. S is the first letter of my dear friend's name. A fellow cancer survivor who is recovering from brain surgery. While I strain to listen, she tentatively sounds out the two syllables of her first name. Yes, it's definitely her; now I recognize the voice. It's my friend, calling me from a phone next to her bed on the hospital's surgical floor. I'm so surprised by the call and thrilled to hear her voice, no matter how much has clearly changed since she was wheeled into the operating room three days ago.

At first, our early morning phone conversation feels more than a little one-sided. I do most of the talking. When I ask my friend a question, she answers with one word: "yes" or "no." There are long pauses before she speaks at all. Then I hear her sound out a word that succinctly sums up her "new normal." Frustrated , she says. She pushes this word out of her mouth again and again as if discovering its meaning and power for the very first time. Frustrated...frustrated...frustrated. She starts to cry, huge gulping sobs. All I can do is hold the phone to my ear and feel helpless as I offer the classic words of encouragement. It's okay. It's only me. Just breathe. I'm here. It's okay . But I feel powerless to fix what's broken. What else can I say? What can I do to help an "impatient patient" who knows full well what's been lost, who desperately wants things back the way they used to be?

The longer we "chat," the more she calms down and loosens up, slowly stringing together more words to form entire sentences: Nurse...here...to...wash...me. Followed by an almost indignant, First... bath... in... four... days ! My fastidious, always well groomed friend is letting me know in no uncertain terms that this is not the way things ought to be. It makes me smile to sense that strong will of hers making itself known, even under these difficult circumstances. My friend's high standards will not be compromised, not even by brain surgery. This young woman, almost legendary for her "to do" lists and attention to detail, is still wrestling with her need to control, even in the midst of the chaos that thrives in Cancerland.

Call it her fighting spirit. Call it her will to live. Call it focus. Call it the power of intention. What washes over me as I listen to my friend struggle with her reality, is a strong feeling I have to call hope. And as I hang up the phone, my clock alarm goes off and it's time to get up for work. But I'm already up, wide awake and peaceful in the knowledge that hope will be the energy that fuels my friend's healing.

What is hope? Our latest Oncolink Poetry Project invites visitors to this website to point, click and type up their poetic response to the prompt, "Hope is..." We are pleased to share some Emily Dickinson, some quotable quotes and some hopeful flowers to inspire you to some creative expression of your own.


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

- Emily Dickinson